Saturday, February 28, 2004

Madness arrives early as bubble teams abound

Tipoff Page: Around the nation

Today is the second-to-last day of February, but it already feels like March.

Two weekends before the major conference tournaments begin, several teams still have work to do to shore up NCAA Tournament at-large bids. Some are trying to hang on to chances that have been slipping for weeks; others are just re-entering the picture after disappointing starts. The constant jockeying has injected an intriguing dose of madness into the final weeks of the regular season.

One month ago, it seemed unfathomable that Missouri would play its way out of oblivion and onto the bubble. And if any team was safe, it was Louisville, which opened the season 16-1. Yet both teams play games today and later this week that will profoundly affect the NCAA brackets in three weeks.

They're not alone. The bubble contingent is unusually large this season because of a lack of quality candidates from the Big Ten and Pacific-10. Those leagues' decline leaves about a dozen open spots available, with about 25 candidates to fill them. And it's not just the Ratings Percentage Index that will determine who gets in and who instead will host an NIT first-round game.

"The RPI is not a very good method of discriminating among those schools," said University of Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby, NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman. "We get down to crunching and trying to find ways to differentiate. It is very typically trying to find something about the team that gets in that that is different from the team that gets left out."

That means the pressure is on for teams such as UAB, Maryland, DePaul, Kent State, Richmond and George Washington to sway the selection committee. It's not so much about winning as not losing.

Richmond has 11 losses and plays at George Washington today. Maryland, Florida State and Georgia each have 10 losses entering pivotal games this weekend. Xavier has lost nine games. One more loss for any of those teams might be too many come Selection Sunday.

If last week was about the Bracket Busters, this week will showcase the Bubble Busters. Some are better positioned than others, but none has locked up an NCAA bid yet.

In good shape

Xavier: XU (17-9) is playing for a seed if it wins last three regular-season games.

Louisville: The Cardinals (17-7) have lost six of 10 but are No. 23 in the RPI.

Dayton: The Flyers are 20-6 and have a favorable upcoming schedule.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide (14-10) have the nation's toughest schedule and a road win at No. 7 Mississippi State.

Manhattan: A solid RPI (48) and 21-5 record give the Jaspers impressive credentials.

Western Michigan: A 21-3 record gets the Broncos into the Tournament as long as they win out and reach Mid-American Conference semis.

Michigan State: The Spartans (16-9) overcame a difficult start to surge to first place in the Big Ten.

BYU: A six-game winning streak has put the Cougars (18-7) on the Tournament bubble and in contention in the Mountain West Conference.

Not so great, but not too late

Kent State: Wednesday's 82-66 loss at Buffalo could be devastating. Without any top-50 victories, the Golden Flashes (20-4) might need to win the MAC Tournament.

Missouri: MU (14-10) has made a strong second-half comeback, but the Tigers need to pick up road wins at Kansas State and Texas Tech.

George Washington: GW (16-8) has three bad losses and not enough quality wins.

Richmond: Wednesday's 56-54 loss to Rhode Island probably ended Richmond's hopes, especially if the Spiders (16-11) lose today at GW.

UTEP: The Miners (21-5) will be hard to ignore if they win their last three games.

Colorado: Wednesday's 94-87 win against Oklahoma bodes well, but the Buffaloes (16-8) must close out well on the road to feel confident.

Maryland: Wins against Wake Forest today and N.C. State Wednesday would put the Terps (14-10) in a much better position.

Michigan: A lack of significant road wins will make it difficult for Michigan (15-9) to stand out above the other bubble teams.

NIT or bust

Rutgers: Only one top-50 win for the Knights (16-9).

Georgia: The Bulldogs (14-10) would have to be the eighth SEC team to get a bid.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 14-10 and could suffer from a weak Big Ten.

Creighton: At 19-6, the Bluejays have too many losses for their weak schedule.

Nevada: Is 17-8, but it's hard to take the third-place team in the WAC.

Notre Dame: Power wins are canceled out by 13-11 record.

Hawaii: Is 17-8, but lost four of five from Feb. 12-23.

Purdue: Even at 17-9, an RPI of 91 is weak.



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